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The Writing Life - A study in setting

February 6, 2015
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer , Estherville News

This is a monthly column on the writing process. Topics will range from books and authors to writing conferences and workshops to the writing process itself.

Of Time and the River a study in setting

Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth by Thomas Wolfe. Scribner. ISBN 978-0684867854 (cloth) 978-0684166490 (paper).

I sometimes half-joke about once having owned a 1950 Studebaker pickup that had so much extra space under the hood that if it was raining I could crawl inside the engine compartment, pull the hood all the way down and start working on it.

While that's no longer possible since I no longer own the pickup and I'm somewhat larger than I was when I did own it, the point was that vehicles back then had plenty of room for you to work on them - nothing like today's cars when it seems like you almost have to remove the engine to change the oil.

Books are the same way. While I thoroughly enjoy some of today's contemporary writers like T.C. Boyle and Maggie Shipstead, I often miss those huge, sprawling novels that take up an entire landscape.

Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth by Thomas Wolfe is just such a novel. Wolfe, who died in 1938, left behind a treasure ship of works that were unfortunately eclipsed by other giants such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck. Had he come before or after these contemporaries, Wolfe's sun may have been brighter than any of them.

To me, Wolfe's greatest strength was his ability to paint a setting as well as Rembrandt. And it's his character Eugene Gant's journey through Look Homeward Angel and later Of Time and the River that make this one of the greatest American novels ever written.

Throughout the novel, Eugene is torn between his mother from the South and his father from the North, a father estranged from Eugene's mother until his very death when Eugene finally comes to know and understand what his father meant to him. In a sense, this could quite possibly be a metaphor for the America of Wolfe's time which was still dealing with the wounds of the Civil War - and which some might say is still dealing with them today.

Wolfe's description is nothing short of poetic as he describes a North Carolina backwoodsman:

"And the mountaineer goes hunting down in North Carolina, he stays out late with mournful flop-eared hounds, a rind of moon comes up across the rude lift of hills."

Now that's description we can chew on and savor.

And there's this description of a river - one of the novel's central symbols that bears a striking resemblance to the lyrics of the song "Time" by Alan Parsons:

"The great river slowly drinks the land as we lie sleeping and the mired banks cave and crumble in the dark, the earth melts and drops into its tide, great horns are baying in the gulph of night, great boats are baying at the river's mouth. Then darkened by our dumpings, thickened by our stains, rich, rank, beautiful, and unending as all life, all loving, the river, the dark anointed river, full of strange tragic time is flowing by us - by us - by us - to the sea."

And then there's the hauntingly beautiful description of his mother's home so reflective of Eugene's feelings for his family:

"And as he turned the kitchen light out, he heard her door close quietly behind him, and the dark and lonely silence of the old house was all around him as he went down the hall. And a thousand voices - his father's, his brother's, and of the child that he himself had been, and all the lives and voices of the hundred others, the lost, the vanished people were whispering to him as he went down the old dark hall there in his mother's house. And the remote demented wind was howling in the barren trees, as he had heard it do so many times in his childhood, and far off, far-faint and broken by the wind, he heard the wailing cry of the great train, buoying to him again its wild and secret promises of flight and darkness, new lands, and a shining city. And there was something wild and dark and sweet in him that he could never utter. The strange and bitter miracle of life had filled him and he could not speak, and all he knew was that he was leaving home forever, that the world, the future of dark time, and of man's destiny lay before him, and that he would never live here in his mother's house again."

And then there's Eugene's epiphany of what makes an artist:

"At that instant he saw, in one blaze of light, an image of unutterable conviction, the reason why the artist works and lives and has his being - the reward he seeks - the only reward he really cares about, without which there is nothing. It is to snare the spirits of mankind into nets of magic, to make his life prevail through his creation, to wreak the vision of his life, the rude and painful substance of his own experience, into the consequence of blazing and enchanted images that are themselves the core of life, the essential pattern whence all things proceed, the kernel of eternity."

Writers can learn from other writers regardless of the age in which those other writers were writing. The tragedy of Sophocles, the humanity of Shakespeare, the dialogue of Hemingway and the setting of Wolfe are all models a writer of any time can follow.

It's setting, though, in which Thomas Wolfe is the undisputed master - at least among writers of this or the last century. And for that, he's an author worthy of very close study - even if it's a novel such as this that, like Wolfe, stretches like a giant to find its full landscape.

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